The lights are blinding. But out of the corner of my eye, I see Doc Fernando slip in from backstage. I leap out of my chair and head straight for him. He races offstage, past a wall of security men, deep into the audience. Security closes the gap between us. "Crazy bitch!" he shouts, pointing his finger at me.
I shower him with profanity, which home viewers will hear only as "Beeeeeeeep!"
Security pushes me back. The audience roars.
The Jerry Springer Show is sideshow and peepshow in one--tune in late nights for a smorgasbord of transvestites, trailer-town toothless wonders, cat-fights, brawls, tittie, tail, and tongue. Gawk or puke, Springer's freak show earns ratings that surpass even those of diva Oprah Winfrey. Of course, I didn't know any of this before I got the call last February.
The show supposedly receives 3,000 to 4,000 calls a week from would-be guests. On February 15, they received one from an acquaintance of mine, a Seattleite by the name of Katy. She'd dialed 1-800-96-JERRY dozens of times over the years, and never gotten an answer. This time an automated service picked up. "Are you having an affair with an animal?" the recording asked. "Press one now. Are you in love with an object? Press two now. Are you in a love triangle and you're ready to choose just one lover? Press three now." Katy pressed three and spilled her guts to a machine for 60 seconds.
At 8:00 the next morning, the Springer show called Katy. And Katy called me. She'd used my name in describing the love triangle she was allegedly a part of, along with a guy I know named Fernando. She urged me to call a producer named* "Mary". I guess my carny blood kicked in. I picked up the phone.
Right away I was on the spot. "Tell me what's happening with you, Katy, and Fernando," Mary requested in a sweet but let's-get-to-the-point tone.
I had the flu. Doing my best to overcome a naturally raspy voice, oversmoked and clogged by fatigue and phlegm, I launched into my rant: "I want him to keep his dick out of her!"
That, Mary informed me, was the ticket.
"And then there was that porn movie incident!" I added, improvising.
The more I made things up, the more my rant spun recklessly away from the centrifugal force of the triangle. Not to worry. Vigilant Mary--apparently quite accustomed to corralling the incoherent confessions of trash and bad actors--yanked me back: "Never mind," she said. "Tell me about the sex. Did you ever sleep with him?"
Ignoring her question, I shouted, "When she's drunk enough, she'll fuck a rock!" That, of course, was fodder for another show.
"Are you on probation?" Mary queried.
I hesitated. "No... is that a bad thing?"
"Oh, no. We just need to know in case we have to contact your probation officer for travel. Do you know where to find Fernando?"
"Maybe," I said. But I really had no idea how to track him down. And I couldn't think of any other Latin men, especially men sitting around the house waiting to be discovered by The Jerry Springer Show.
THE SWEDISH FERNANDO
I wracked my brain trying to come up with someone to fill Fernando's shoes, trying to keep as faithful to Katy's original story--whatever the hell that was--as possible. Katy assured me that it didn't matter who played the guy as long as we had someone. "We have to find a third person," she pleaded. "They want us to fly out tonight. I can just hear the producers talking to each other, going, 'I've got one! I've got one!' If we don't find someone soon we won't be one."
We came up with Stephen, a Swede I'd worked with on a couple of construction sites, who goes by the nickname "Doc." But how would we explain that our Latin lover wasn't even remotely Latin? Katy brainstormed: "The ABBA song. Remember that? He's like the Swedish Fernando. For a Swede he's like Latin."
We called Mary back, but were transferred to a woman named "Barbara," who had a warm Southern drawl. She asked--no, prodded--me about how I felt about Fernando. Using verbal pruning techniques, she made it clear that she didn't want to hear anything but "Me Salem. Me want to bash Fernando!" We were being coached.
Barbara put Mary on the line, who, as if she were Ed McMahon telling me I'd won the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes, said, "Salem, pack your bags!! We'll call soon with flight information." When I protested in dumbed-down English about flight costs, she responded, "I'll take care of everything. And bring sexy clothes."
"All I got is jeans and T-shirts," I lamented.
"We'll provide clothes too. Don't worry."
Our plane took off at 6:30 the next morning. Katy had popped some Vicadin for a root canal done the day before, and was a walking mental disaster. Stephen "Doc Fernando", his hair slicked back with grease and toting a Marlboro duffel bag, was in a state of disbelief about the whole thing. None of us had had much sleep. We sucked down Bloody Marys, hoping the booze would help us brainstorm the details of our fictional love triangle: Who had slept with who, and when. How we'd met. What we'd said to each other.
Katy struck up a conversation with a cellular phone salesman sitting near us, who admitted a fondness for the Springer show. Soon the entire plane was aware that we trashy three were on a crash course with our 15 minutes of fame. A stewardess asked the premise. "I'm having multiple affairs with stewardesses," I told her.
She put up her hand: "I don't want to go there."
As our plane descended into O'Hare, we were still not sure of our story. And walking through the airport, the drab, gray Chicago light seemed to paint us ashen. I was fresh out of the dirt from the house I'd been renovating all winter, my hair bleached to a near-Warholian white. I looked more homeless butch dyke than successful Seattle contractor and poet. Katy's hippie-whore throwback clothing revealed its stains and tatters. Doc Fernando was hung over and slouching. We looked like hell.
Then we saw the woman holding the limo sign at the gate. What? Were we rock stars?
We dove into the black stretch limo. Strangers stared, wondering who the hell we could be. Katy discovered Busch beer in a cooler. The driver said Jerry didn't want us to drink before the show, but didn't protest when Katy popped open a can and slugged it down.
THE FREAK FACTORY
The limo delivered us to the NBC Tower in downtown Chicago. A gaggle of young interns escorted us to an elevator, then to the floor where both the Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones shows are produced. The atmosphere was hospital-basement stale: white linoleum, white walls, fluorescent lights. We were led through a maze of corridors until a door opened and we were shooed into a green room. There was Mary, a lithe sharp-dressed woman in blue pinstripes. Did we need anything?
We needed a story, but I settled for water and cough drops.
The green room setup was comprised of two dressing rooms (one of which housed a make-up artist), two toilets, and a waiting area. It was furnished with a few beige couches and brown tables. Producers appeared and disappeared through what seemed trap-door magic, and stillness didn't descend upon the green room until we were presented with nondisclosure forms, which included a passage stipulating that our story was true. PR folks for the Springer show contend that "we do our best" to check the facts, but that some fakes "slip by possibly." They had no comment when asked whether on-air battles are staged.
A woman in black eyed us before nervously floating out a loopy signature on her own contract. Lori something-or-other. Who was she? An actress? Was she going to be somebody's surprise lover?
I stalled my signature with comments like, "You need a college degree to make it through this thing! What does this mean about the show owning my image? If I want to use it, do I have to buy it back?"
The impatient producer informed me the paragraph referred to reruns.
"Oh, cool." I signed.
THE MAKING OF SALEM
I returned from a trip to the bathroom to find that my cohorts had been mysteriously whisked away. The woman in black remained. She smoked a cigarette and watched Ren and Stimpy on a TV set in the corner of the room. The sound was off, and there was no knob to turn the channel.
It wasn't long before men's slacks and dress shirts appeared before me in various sizes (apparently Springer's staff had decided I wasn't the type for trampy dresses). I pulled on a pair of dark blue pants and a blue shirt. My own clothing was taken away. Producer Barbara appeared for a little coaching. "Jerry's going to say, 'Salem, what's going on?' And you're going to say...??"
"Don't smile. We don't want to see you smiling." She had other tips. "Don't talk about drugs and alcohol. Try not to say 'fuck' or 'shit' too much. If too much gets bleeped, the TV audience won't understand your story."
"Can I use the word cocksucker?"
"That's a good one," Barbara nodded.
Though the three of us had fretted endlessly about our so-called relationship and what we were going to say about it, it was becoming clear to me that we didn't need a story at all. The producers were master manipulators, skilled at subtly--and not so subtly--coaching guests into saying and doing exactly what they wanted. And what they wanted was a quick explanation of the love triangle, and for us to start throwing chairs.
Unbeknownst to me, in another room Doc Fernando was being coached on things he might want to say to me. "Tell her, 'Your tongue isn't good enough,'" suggested another producer, assuring Fernando that it's okay to use the word penis on TV.
Katy was subjected to similar prodding. "Choose Salem," Springer staffers advised her. Apparently too high to deal with the situation, she'd assumed the lotus position and was pretending to meditate. She snapped out of it only when Springer himself rolled through. "You're like providing a confessional service for people," Katy beamed. "To hell with the Catholic Church."
Jerry paused, said, "I like that," and strutted out.
When it was my turn in the make-up room, my female make-up artist cooed, "Ooh honey, I could just kiss you! I know exactly what I'm going to do with you!" R&B floated out of a tinny CD player that was dusted with blue eye shadows and pink blushes. She flattened my 'do with half a can of Aqua-Net and plastered my face with foundation. I stared at myself in the mirror. Yep, I was becoming two-dimensional.
The next step was shoes, which posed a problem. An intern dumped a pile of black women's shoes at my feet, but when I tried to stuff my super-wide feet into them, none fit. "Get me some men's shoes," I requested. More black shoes were dumped at my feet. Again, none fit. I chose a pair that were a little too big and, strangely, had pink and white frosting on them. The producer explained that they'd just taped a show where a wedding cake had been smashed, and the shoes hadn't been properly cleaned. "Get something to wipe that off," she commanded the intern. By the time she got back, I was playing the butch, leg crossed over knee, placidly flicking cake frosting off my shoes.
The woman in black watched me. "You seem calm."
"I ain't shy. Are you gonna be on the show?"
"Yeah. Me and my girlfriend and her best friend. I'm Lori."
Turns out Lori had called 1-800-96-JERRY during a game of truth or dare in
her little Tennessee town. We were all freaks. And we were all fakes.
Barbara cornered me in the dressing room. "We've talked with everyone, and you're the most pumped up," she said, explaining that I'd be the first to hit the stage from my group. "When you see Fernando, get out of your chair and chase him."
"I'll kick his ass!" I shouted with glee.
She nodded enthusiastically.
"Can I yell at the audience?" More nods. "Can I say shit like, 'He's so fucking ugly--would you sleep with this dog?'"
Her smile broadened. "Yes. Yes, that's good."
"I'm gonna teach the whole world about fistfucking!" I punched my fist into the air. "I'm gonna tell him, 'I come here on national TV on The Jerry Springer Show to kick your mutherfuckin' ass!' He deserves it, messin' with my woman!"
"No, don't say 'national TV' or refer to the show itself."
The do's and don'ts were schizophrenic. "Fistfucking," okay. "National TV," not okay.
"I never been on TV before."
"It's okay. But you're going to put on a show, right? You won't let us down, right? You won't get out there and freeze in your chair, right?"
"I'm gonna kick his fuckin', ass! Messin' with my woman! He deserves it!"
I wouldn't freeze. But I wondered how I'd keep from busting out laughing. Barbara came and went, and little by little the merry-go-round production technique brainwashed me until I had but one thought in my head: "I'll kick his ass!"
They never asked why Fernando wasn't Latin.
After what seemed an eternity, an intern escorted me out of the green room, through acres of linoleum, and past a long white wall that read The Jenny Jones Show in big red letters. Finally I was asked to stand in a dark chamber behind Jerry's stage. Barbara came by repeatedly: "You won't let us down right?"
And one final word of advice: "When you chase him, if you catch him, knock him over!"
Wow! A request for violence. I knew Doc had a bum foot, and knocking him over could be truly damaging. "He'll sue you if I hurt him!" I squawked.
"Don't worry," she assured me, "the whole stage is padded. And he knows you're going to chase him. He'll run."
A door opened, and after a mic check, I was coaxed into big, bright Jerryland. Remnants of a broken chair were strewn about the stage from the previous group of lovers. I floated along on the puffy floor. The audience was thrilled. The freak show had begun.
Ten, nine, eight... the stage lights flashed on. And there he was, the man himself.
"Salem, what's going on?"
The audience hooted.
"Six months ago I met a beautiful redhead."
The audience hollered. And Jerry turned to a redhead in the audience, asking her, "Aren't you nervous?"
I ranted, "I found out my co-worker's sleepin' with my woman! The only hands that get to be on Katy are these hands!" I said holding up my hands. "I ain't gonna share the same woman! You think I'm gonna share the same stage? Ain't gonna happen!"
"Looks like you're getting riled," Jerry commented.
The audience was exhilarated. And I found myself getting caught up in the excitement. When Doc Fernando was brought out, I did as I was told and raced toward him. He ran into the audience. I was pushed back into my chair. I went after him again. The audience roared, "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!"
A bouncer pretended to be handling me, but bent to my ear and told me it was time to let Fernando tell his story.
Even the bouncers were producers.
After more verbal and physical crossfire between Fernando and myself, Katy showed up. There she was, her red hair coiled up Wilma-meets-slut style, the gaping root-canaled mouth coming at me for a big French kiss.
I was not hip to the idea of tonguing this woman. For a split second my drag king character nearly came apart, but somehow the kiss collided with my cheek, and her red hair gave me all the cover I needed to fake my way through this unexpected smooch. The audience was beside itself; we were an absolutely gruesome couple. I put my arm around her like I was showing off the greatest piece of ass in the world.
Buzzed on booze and Vicadin, Katy slithered into her chair, her brainfog thick as the haze over San Francisco Bay on an early winter morning. She tried to explain how she'd come to love both a man and a woman, but was only able to mumble and say, "I'm human!" The audience tore her to shreds while Jerry neener-neenered us with his own snide below-the-belters. He worked us and the audience like a true ringmaster.
After a few more love triangles were brought out to air their dirty laundry, we all hit the stage together for a question-and-answer session with the absolutely sadistic audience. (During commercial breaks, audience members would shout mean things at us: one woman yelled at Katy, "Where'd you get those stupid fucking hippie pants?" Katy said they were Jimi Hendrix knock-offs, to which the woman responded, "Jimi Hendrix sucks!") I continued to potty-mouth my way through the show, capping off an audience member's query to Katy about what drugs she was on with, "I never said she had much goin' on upstairs! I don't need her for that!" Katy chewed on her hair, immobilized by root canal medication.
An audience member asked another guest--part of a gay male triangle from Santa Barbara that included a woman named Dee--about whether, after all his years of buttfucking, he was able to fuck a female, or did he just buttfuck her too? Suddenly Dee, whom I would later meet at the hotel, jumped offstage and pounced on the guy who'd asked the question. The security guys hadn't expected this one. Chairs and people tumbled.
Real violence! Jerry beat a hasty retreat, laughing and whining at the same time, "Don't be coming at me! What did I do?"
The audience calmed down, and a loudspeaker informed us it was time for a commercial break. When the lights came up again, Jerry would read a poem.
Jerry Springer surfed through a political career that began when he worked on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign and ended when he was mayor of Cincinnati. Dealings with a whorehouse in Kentucky tainted his political career. But he was a populist, a liberal guy who could string together the kind of simplistic moralisms widely used by both politicians and TV anchors. Landing a position on a Cincinnati news channel, he spent several years collecting Emmys for his anchor commentaries--a formula that he now uses to wrap up every show. His "Final Thought."
The lights came up, and Jerry soapboxed off a TelePrompTer: "Sexuality for each of us falls somewhere on a continuum.... These people are bisexual...." This was poetry! In summation, he said that whatever your orientation, you shouldn't lie or cheat on your lover.
Katy, sliding out of her chair, flipped him the bird.
Stripped of my drag king clothes, my dirty jeans and T-shirt returned to me, the exhilarating circus ride jammed to a halt. We were given signed portraits of Jerry, and Springer food vouchers, good at the Executive Plaza hotel in downtown Chicago where, it turned out, we were staying.
A low-budget gig, the show shoved all three of us into the same hotel room. Doc Fernando called Mary and bitched about having to share a room with the woman that stole his woman. She responded that it was the show's way of helping us heal our differences, but her explanation came off as an admission that she too knew our story was bogus.
I joined up with the Santa Barbara threesome for dinner.
"How long have you been with Katy?" they wanted to know.
No longer interested in having the world believe I was proud of the woman, I confessed, "She's not my girlfriend. I hardly know her."
One by one, we each confessed that we were big fat fakes.
The show was broadcast on April 16. The true violence was edited out, with only the staged chaos remaining. A friend criticized me, saying I was giving dykes a bad name. "We don't have a good name," I responded.
Another accused me of participating in immoral garbage. A call from yet another friend--someone who knew all three of us--came from Hawaii. Had we three hooked up?
I watched the show at the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle. So many people wanted to see it, I figured it would be best to trash a bar instead of my house. The bartender turned off the music, turned on the TV, and cranked up the volume. When my face appeared on the screen, patrons howled, chanting, "Salem! Salem! Salem!" Curious people wandered in and stayed to brush up against my 15 minutes of fame. Closed captioning scrolled across the bottom of the screen--the show was just as interesting without sound. A deaf man patted me on the back, laughing, mouthing, "I bin looking for a good woman a long time too."